Hell at High Altitude :
To whoever may find this –
My recently deployed expedition into these vast mountains has been proven fruitless to say the least. In the past twenty-four hours I have witnessed events my mind cannot quite grasp. I feel my sanity melting away by the moment as this single red candle’s wax drips upon the cold floor of this dark grotto.
I have always been a wanderer; a lover of all things beyond my reach. Ever since I was a young boy residing in a small Pennsylvania town where the mountains stretched for miles outside the windows – the windows looking out upon a world where freedom truly existed – I had always taken a fond interest in what could only be called the Great Outdoors. I wanted to scale those snowy cliffs – reach the very top and watch the normal world below. I would be closer to the stars and the heavens than I could ever be. Those dreams stayed with me through my adolescence and only escalated as I grew into a young adult. Even after the untimely death of my father – a man who had stayed inside his whole life and eventually decided to venture onto those mountains in search for a missing couple, only to find death among the snow-capped peaks – my affinity for those very same frozen hills and natural skyscrapers remained unscathed. If anything, I had wanted to avenge the death of my father: battle those beautifully treacherous banks and cliffs with my own two hands and feet – and win the fight in a victory I’d take to my grave. Alas, these mountains have proven to be far too powerful an opponent for a man of my weakened and baffled condition. I fear I will take something to my grave – very imminently – but a victory it will not be.
My current whereabouts are unknown. My father’s old compass is gone now, lost somewhere among the ever-growing snowstorm raging on outside of this bitter cave in which I have unwittingly sought temporary refuge. Even when I had the compass in my possession, it was a useless tool, as useless as my withered hands that tremble as I try to write these passages in the dimming light of my remaining candle. Perhaps this monstrous altitude had been much too high for the usually-reliable compass. Or perhaps something even more menacing had befallen me: a curse. Hikers and mountain-climbers and folks who have traveled the very same twisting paths upon which I’ve traveled have told and retold superstitious tales of paranormal events occurring on these cliffs. Tales of murder and greed throughout the colonies of Native Americans of old. Those stories haunted my slumbering mind during many cold nights as a child, and now they are cutting at my aching muscles like ancient, blunt arrowheads being driven into my brain by the cold hand of some violent ghost unseen by living eyes.
Twelve years prior to this moment in time – or so I can only assume, although time at this juncture seems beyond my knowing – two local lovers named Francis and Ruth grew bored one frigid evening: bored with their tedious lives as average townsfolk, lusting for adventure – thirsty for the arctic taste of the unknown. The young hearts had made an unwise impromptu decision to wander off in the dead of night toward the grey-white mountains at the edge of civilization, telling only the barkeep at the town’s only tavern of their sudden plans to challenge God’s hills. The particular range chosen by the lovers had, according to legend, been home to ruthless Natives who fought for centuries to protect their land only to be forced amidst the stone-cold peaks for eternity. Vengeful spirits roamed those cliffs, but Francis and Ruth, intoxicated with whisky and an insatiable curiosity, ignored all stories and warnings and made their way to the top of the deadly mountains. Four days went by and the couple had not returned. Their families grew more and more concerned by the hour – until finally three fathers declared that they would form among themselves a search party and follow the footprints left behind by the wandering lovers leading up the winding trails of the accursed cliffs. My own father – a factory man all his life – stepped forward and opted to join the manmade search party to my mother’s chagrin. Perhaps he, like the missing couple, had been bored with his regular life. Or perhaps he felt the unyielding bite of responsibility, and chose not to ignore the firm grip of the beast’s sharp teeth. Nonetheless, he and the other three men packed their supplies – including, notably, the compass I had brought with me on my own doomed escapade – and followed the couple’s footprints up the winding trail of the mountainside.
Five days later a second rescue party was sent for my father and the other three fathers, who had not come back from their search. This second party returned in a mere eight hours – and with them they had dragged down the slippery slopes three stiff cadavers. The first corpse was that of an unknown man – likely a vicious Native American – who had been found frozen to death, his gaping face shielded in blue, in a small cave about a mile from the other bodies. The second body belonged to one of the fathers who had joined mine in the search for Francis and Ruth – his body was frozen over, and both his legs had been broken. And the final cadaver, to me and my mother’s dismay, was the body of my own father – whose iced cuts and wounds implied he had been stabbed to death. Uncovered with the unknown man, my weeping mother had been told, was a stack of soaked parchment. Spotted beside my father’s dead body was his lucky compass and a blood-encrusted Indian arrowhead. The compass was given to me as an heirloom. All three bodies, along with the damp parchment, were set aflame the following morning.
As a boy of only eight years, I was unsure how to properly handle the unsettling news of my father’s death. My mother spent every following day in morose silence and every following night in heartbroken tears – up until she chose to take her own life two weeks prior to this very moment. Now I am twenty, and the powerful lure of the mountains has continued to entice me. One week ago I felt the need – the unavoidable urge – to travel upon the very same path which had, twelve years earlier, led to my father’s demise. Perhaps the unpredictable call of the wild was to blame, or perhaps it was the fault of an odd sense that somehow I had been destined to repeat my father’s wicked mistake, but the reasons matter not. Regardless of them, whatever they may be, I began my voyage upward toward the heavens, trudging along the same path a foolish young couple had once been drawn to so many nights ago.
The journey had begun with reasonably smooth velocity. I trekked up dastardly slopes and meticulously moved across rickety manmade bridges and naturally-formed cliffs of ice and snow with impressive ease. I had spent my teenage years hiking smaller hills and less-steep mountains, so in my own way I had come physically prepared. I was not wandering along these paths to seek revenge – at least not consciously – and I hadn’t worried even for a moment that my fate would reflect that of my father and the young couple before him. This was to be a trek for myself and only myself. It was something I had felt compelled to do since my father was still alive and well. This was my life’s dream in action.
The first few days and nights were somewhat challenging, but I managed to keep my hopes up and summon deep strength when it was needed. I battled icy winds and fought through incessant snowstorms.
Predictably, the hardships of the journey worsened as hours crawled by. At times, even though my entire field of vision was covered in white static, I felt as though I had been dispersed in total blackness. No amount of darkness – no sheer lack of light could ever match the unforgiving twilight of those white-washed afternoons. Often I felt misplaced, as if my feet were no longer dragging along the crunchy snow-masked ground and instead my entire body had been heaved into the endless white space where it drifted hopelessly toward a lonely oblivion. I could not see, I could not hear; I could not make any sense of my surroundings. It was at this point that my father’s compass had ceased working – its thin metal arm spun uncontrollably as if possessed by a mischievous demon. North and South became figments of my bleak imagination as the chilling thought slowly dawned on me that precise navigation was beyond my control. How many days had gone by? Six? Seven? It felt like an eternity. The nights and the afternoons blended together in a heap of white – my entire physical being enveloped within the suffocating snow and heavy pale clouds. I was no longer a part of this earth. Pennsylvania had been erased from this sinister plane of existence, wherever it was.
Whenever my body became weary and my spirits unfathomably low, I’d spend a few moments pitching my makeshift tent – a flap of grey canvas being raised by two thin stakes stabbed into the hard ground. Sleep did not come easily, and when it did, it was not spent with an iota of comfort. The bitter evenings – or, hell, they could’ve been mornings for all I knew – had consisted mostly of the local howls of hungry wolves and the distant chant of hoarse, ghoulish voices. The inaudible chants – often uttered in eerie unison and song – grew nearer as my heartbeat quickened… harsh whispers filling the air like the hum of a wild coyote, distant but close, loud but soft, all around me from every conceivable direction. I shivered as tingling chills drew down my spine – the wailing phantoms were right behind me! I could feel their cold breaths trickle upon the back of my neck – even colder than the already-frozen air. I could taste the stale burn of death closing in on me as the storm raged and the sobbing voices echoed and squalled throughout the white-washed hell waiting for me outside of the violently-flapping canvas… beckoning me, mocking me, smothering me. My only response was to grit my teeth and shut my tearful eyes as tight as I possibly could, and pray for it to end, pray for it to end, pray for it to end…
I remember awakening abruptly from that particular slumber to find that my makeshift tent had vanished, most likely stolen by the harsh winds during my few fleeting hours of blissful sleep. I was then without shelter, and the storm was not slowing. The wind howled around me, but all other sounds were absent – diminished by the storm’s ceaseless roars. No – there were no sounds here because even the wolves wouldn’t dare retreat to this lethal altitude. These wretched, towering cliffs were devoid of all life. My fate, it seemed, had been sealed.
I was no longer in the same spot where I had set up camp the night prior. None of my surroundings held even a vague semblance of familiarity. Granted, these mountains were generally unfamiliar to me, but even in my ignorance it was obvious that that particular location was not one I had encountered before. I had been moved – mysteriously repositioned… but how? Had the strong winds lifted me and tossed me in the middle of a higher field, onto a cliff closer to the stars? The pressing sensation against my ears confirmed the presumption that I had somehow escalated to a greater altitude, but that did little to answer the ominous question of how?
I gathered my few remaining possessions and moved onward in God knows what direction. I shuffled through the storm for hours until finally I spotted two objects ahead of me – silhouettes of what I had assumed were men moving toward me. I shuddered at the sight of them, knowing that no sane white man could possibly be wandering these cascading cliffs. Fearing who or what may lie in the distance, I attempted to take cover behind a small boulder, but to no avail. I could already hear their deep voices calling out to me, but I could not understand the context over the growling winds. I had known, though, that the two dark silhouettes continued moving in my direction. In my paranoid mind there was not a single doubt that the intentions of these men were malignant – and so I armed myself with the only object within arms’ reach: a somewhat sharp stone I found at the base of the boulder. It would take a bit of effort for the rock to pierce tissue and muscle, but fortunately I could already feel adrenaline begin to surge through my veins. Surely I could summon the strength to do what was necessary. The dire situation had certainly called for it.
Once the approaching silhouettes came within several feet of me, I did not hesitate to leap at them, wielding the stone high above my head as I released a powerful battle cry and lunged at the taller of the two figures. I had never been a fighter, and so it should come as no surprise that as I swung the stone downward I missed the man’s chest and had instead heaved myself upon him, tackling him to the ground. I fell safely to my knees upon the snow-covered ridge, but the bulky stranger wasn’t so lucky – I watched the man’s flailing body descend, his begging moans growing distant, into a vast empty space that had appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The sudden appearance of the deadly ledge, camouflaged against an all-white backdrop, had forced me to worry that I might accidentally slip and tumble to my own doom.
Regardless of that perfectly rational fear, I had to take down the second stranger. I turned toward the evidently stunned and unmoving man, whose face was concealed behind a brown cloth, and once again drew my arm upward, still gripping tightly to the sharp stone. In one swift blow I brought my arm down upon the muttering stranger, slamming his body to the ground, and felt warm liquid gush against my hand. The stone had penetrated the man’s chest, and a wild, incoherent groan emerged from behind the brown cloth shielding his face. I lifted the stone once more and proceeded to plunge it into the brute’s stomach repeatedly, until the pained groans ceased and the silenced stranger was dead.
By that time, cool tears had been flowing from my eyes and down my pink cheeks. I was confused, startled, and paranoid. My grip on sanity had already been steadily slipping, and those unanticipated killings had done nothing to assuage my panicked nerves. I slumped against the heavy body of the deceased assaulter and wept for several minutes, all the while attempting to gradually accept the bizarre and disturbing circumstances of my conundrum.
Once my level of emotional distraught had decreased slightly, I decided to search the dead man’s bloody body for any items that could come of use to me at that juncture. I patted down the assailant’s thick leather vest and felt in its inner pocket the round shape of a compass. Quickly and with hope, I retrieved the navigational tool from the pocket and brought it close to my face so that I could read it. An ephemeral sensation of joy took over as the thought of finally finding a way down this rotten mountain filled my head and heart. But the feeling of much-needed optimism rapidly faded as I realized not only that this man’s compass was broken and thereby rendered useless, but that a name had been carved into the back of the brass instrument. Embedded in the metal of the tool was the name ABE WARRINGTON, inscribed in capital letters that stared at me like a ferocious monster eying my gaping jaw with a wild grin. I could not believe it. Surely my tired eyes had been toying with my severely underslept mind. But this was not so – for immediately upon removing the brown cloth obscuring the dead man’s face, the weight of an entire mountain came falling upon my frail shoulders.
I dropped the impossible compass to the snow-capped ground and took off running into endless oblivion while terrible howls bellowed all around me. The cackling phantoms had returned, their grisly chants pounding against my throbbing cranium as I attempted to outrun them – but I was too slow. I was too weak, too distracted. My thoughts were elsewhere – back with the murdered corpse and the brass compass and the perpetual looming question of HOW? But my body still ran, as fast as my weary legs could move, trying desperately to escape the shrill, agonizing shrieks of whatever ungodly demons inhabited these bedeviled hills. Eventually I stumbled, tripped, fell into a dark, grey hole that appeared out of thin air, my screams bouncing off the stone walls around me as faces engraved in the cascading grey glared at me with accusing eyes and twisted grins. I descended down the narrowing grotto, reaching hopelessly for nothing, falling to my inevitable death…
…which brings me to here, where I am, now, whenever and wherever that may be. I am deep within the mountains somewhere, caught between some unholy place in history, and I know that I will soon be found, but by then I will not be among the living. My bony fingers are quivering spastically and my lungs are filled to the brim with the cold, toxic air of death. The dark floor beneath me is glowing with red melted wax and this final candle is moments away from burning out. I am not sure how any of this could have possibly happened but regardless of my blind confusion the impossible events have, indeed, occurred. I am a murderer, a prisoner, a man who was slowly lured into a demented trap, and all I can do now is write my harrowing account upon this dampened stack of parchment.
I only pray that anybody who finds this may heed my warning: leave now. Do not return. Move away from these macabre mountains – these tormented trails and snow-capped peaks which are home to something menacing and insidious… I have stared into its lifeless eyes and felt its devious glare, as I feel it now, watching me. Waiting for me to give in, to perish. Knowing that I will. It is a beast that cannot be defeated, a vengeance that cannot be achieved, a mountain that cannot be climbed. I sign this letter, a slave to the unavoidable fate and destiny of myself as well as my father, and a man lost in the white-wash of time. Beyond these grey walls that will soon become my tomb, my white hell awaits me.
Abraham Warrington, Jr.